Archive for the ‘China’ Category

The Khunjerab Pass

Thursday, September 2nd, 2010

(James) We awoke the following morning and were all loaded and ready by the comparatively early time of 8:20, fully expecting to hit the road for the 120km climb up to the Khunjerab Pass – the border between China and Pakistan, which at 4755 metres (15,600 feet) is the highest border crossing and paved road in the world. Pulling back out on to the KKH, our guide told us to go ahead so off we went only to be over taken a kilometre down the road to be told to turn round which we promptly did, just to be taken to a Chinese customs post just 500m from our hotel! We couldn’t quite work out why we couldn’t have just been told to go there in the first place but by now we were getting used to running round in circles! Just as when we had entered China, we were faced with dozens of self important officials whose jobs seemed to involve simply holding us in specific areas just so they could keep themselves occupied until it was time to go home – at least in Turkmenistan they spent their (and our) time filling in forms! We spent an hour at the customs shed having the engine and chassis numbers of our bikes checked against their paperwork (as if we’d have swapped our bikes for one of the 100cc Chinese bikes!?) and, bizarrely, having to get our bikes lined up abreast (perfectly abreast, we had to move several of them forwards or back a few inches to appease officials!) for photographs! Roberta, Donato’s pillion, then had to pose for propaganda photos next to a bike with some officials whilst holding some sort of document. (Alternatively, it could be for some sort of ‘2011 People’s Republic Customs Service Calendar’ and Roberta could find fame as Miss August 2011. Who knows?!)

Having satisfied the customs officials, it was over to immigration but our hopes of a quick getaway were dashed as the internet was down and without it the office closed! (who knew the Chinese system was so fragile?). Cue another hour of sitting around. Finally word spread that everything was back up and running and there was an almighty rush for the door. Order was restored inside though by some important (in their own mind) looking officers, one of whose job seemed to be to simply stand in the middle of the corridor at attention, moving only to tell us off for turning to talk to each other in the queue and making us stand in a straight line, facing the same way, and like him, at attention! (yes, really!). Just as on entry there was a little electronic box at the passport control asking us to comment on whether the service was: ‘friendly and efficient’, ‘satisfactory’, ‘checking took too much time’ and ‘poor service’. As before, the ‘e-survey’ wasn’t located at the end of the process but halfway through, next to a board with a list of customer service targets that officials hope to meet, one of which, we were amused to read assured us that customs processing should, for 95% of people, taken no more than 45 seconds per person. It didn’t mention what the other 5% should expect but after 90 minutes we had an idea why. Next, it was the army’s turn and we spent our time sweltering in the car park next to our bikes whilst a dozen soldiers, all of whom looked no more 11 years old and who seemed to be drowning in what I can only assume was the smallest sized uniform the Chinese army could muster, tried to look officious and asked us bizarre questions, clearly completely misunderstanding what it was exactly they were supposed to be doing. One, for example, had been nominated (or had nominated himself?!) to be in charge of the car park toilet so whilst we had been, to a degree,  free to roam around the more ‘sensitive’ areas of the facility, we couldn’t go to what was a brick shed with a drop hole  in the middle of the car park without him escorting us. For the boys he even came in to watch us, either for pleasure or to ensure that we didn’t plant some sort of high-tech eavesdropping device somewhere, after all who knows what kind of highly classified secrets that could possibly undermine the regime might be revealed by those officials deemed so irrelevant that they’re posted to the backwater that is Tash Kurgan!…..

Given that we were still 125km from the border which was at the top of the Khunjerab Pass we had been keen to get some miles under our belts as early as possible, so when, after an 8:20 departure were still sitting just 500 metres from our hotel as midday arrived it’s fair to say we were getting a little fed up with Chinese officialdom, so we were relieved when Musa told us we were now free to go and said good-bye (his role ended at this point). Of course, there was still one more pointless instruction – we were to wait and then follow a parked people-carrier to the border. As we waited, 50 metres down the road from the customs post the same soldiers and officials who’d been so zealously checking everybody’s luggage came out and started loading the car with contraband before heading off, and as predicted within 10km we’d completely lost sight of the vehicle!

As before, the Chinese section of the KKH was smooth tarmac with road steadily increasing in altitude throughout the day and although we had increasingly large mountains around us, it was clear that we were climbing onto a plateau. Despite having made adjustments to the bikes to compensate for the thinner air at higher altitude, some of the bikes were starting to feel a little sluggish. Ours on the whole were absolutely fine but were tending to stall at idle, nothing that some additional tweaking couldn’t solve. Fabian on the other hand was really starting to struggle and riding behind him I could see that even on relatively gentle inclines he was having to drop one and even two gears to keep going, and even then he was still losing speed. Clearly his bike wasn’t happy and our thoughts and conversation at break stops turned to likely causes and, of course the possibility of his bike dying before we got to our highest point – the Khunjerab Pass. True enough as the road turned towards the highest mountains and the incline of the road increased Fabian’s bike, like the temperature, began to drop. By the time we reached 4000 metres, our highest point thus far, Fabian was reduced, throttle fully open, to just 18 kph (about 12 mph) and we could run, laughing, alongside taking photos and video of him (which we did a lot!).  By 4200m (13,079 feet) he was down to a mere 10 kph (6mph) and we were having to get off the bikes (never easy when you’re crying with laughter) every hundred metres or so to give him a running push up the hill, and by 4500m (14,763 feet) we were simply laughing too hard to be of any use to him or anyone else, and as Fabian would ride past (screaming) at full throttle at a glacial 5kph (2mph) it was all we could do to drop to our knees in hysterics and concentrate all our energy on breathing! Almost inevitably we reached an altitude where Fabian’s poor heavily laden bike simply refused to go another metre and we were at 4550m and were still another 200m short of the pass! We’d already tried a few running/pushing starts which at such altitude had absolutely knackered us so we opted to tow Fabian the rest of way up, and given that Stefano’s bike, at 1150cc, was the biggest it was decided that he should do the towing. Within a few minutes we had lashed together a few lengths of rope and some straps and, having agreed some ground rules for towing motorcycles up steep inclines, we gave Fabian what we hoped was his last uphill push start, and as hoped off he went. Even the Chinese soldiers at the final checkpoint couldn’t help but smile as we rode towards them, even lifting the barriers so they wouldn’t have to lose momentum. Less than 10 minutes later we approached the crest of the pass and rode underneath an unnecessarily large archway. Before us lay Pakistan but before descending we stopped and spent 20 minutes having lunch on the world’s highest border crossing and reminded the continentals in our group that in Pakistan we would be riding  on the ‘right’ (as in correct) side of the road!

Steadily climbing towards Pakistan…

Wednesday, September 1st, 2010

(Em) To my enormous relief the Karakorum Highway began with smooth tarmac, albeit being a rather narrow, single lane road unlike the grand title suggests. Once away from Kashgar, we were soon riding through bleak yet staggering scenery as the road started to climb into the Pamir mountains. Giant rock faces loomed over us and we could see huge boulders poised to crash down in the next heavy storm. I was pleased to find that my bike was running a lot better after an adjustment to the fuel intake in Kashgar – crossing the Torugart Pass into China and ever since then, my engine had cut out every time I came down to first gear or had it idling in neutral. Not particularly reassuring. Fabian’s Honda was also struggling in the high altitude, responding poorly and moving sluggishly; it also didn’t help that our honorary Spaniard himself was getting dizzy from vertigo… We all stuck fairly close together, should anyone have any problems, and as a result the group now has a collection of fantastic photos of each other from whenever we stopped at a particular scenic moment – it’s a real bonus to have photos of yourself riding as it’s obviously not easy to achieve, especially for those who are riding solo.

We arrived at our destination, Lake Kara Kul, in the late afternoon and were stunned by the beauty of the lake in its setting between two Pamir giants, Muztagh Ata at 7546m and Mt Kongur at 7719m. At 3700m, the lake itself was at high altitude and we could see clearly the glaciers making their way down from the snowy mountain peaks. Accommodation for the night was a yurt (yay!), although this time all eight of us were together in one dwelling – rather cosy! After a short walk by the lake, we enjoyed a delicious supper made by a local Kyrgyz family in their mud house and snuggled down on piles of soft mattresses for the night. It was a great stop off point, only spoilt by an ugly Chinese restaurant and the distgusting drop toilets outside (they were re-christened ‘The Pyramids’ – will leave that to your imagination but suffice to say, we all found rocks to go behind as a preferable alternative…!) By the time James and I got up in the morning, cloud was swirling around the peaks but those keenos who got up for sunrise had been rewarded by a clear view. We braved the ‘restaurant’ for breakfast but shouldn’t have bothered – I don’t think the girl could have been any ruder if she’d tried, and our omelettes, when they eventually arrived, were nothing more than deep fried eggs. Unbelievably, Carl and Bene actually went for a dip in the lake (bear in mind we were all wrapped up in fleeces and woolly hats!) – they’re real water babies and don’t need much encouragement to submerge in the nearest water source. Ker-azy!

Tuesday was an easy day (about time!) with only 100km to cover to Tash Kurgan, the destination for our final night in China, and the smooth road  showing no signs of abating. More stunning scenery had us stopping every five minutes to take photographs; each corner we rounded revealed and even more amazing mountain vista or yet another herd of long-haired yak. I got a little concerned at one point when James stopped to help Stefano with something and ushered me to continue, yet 20 minutes later they still hadn’t caught back up. Your mind wanders to all sorts of nasty possibilities when riding in such a desolate environment and I was very relieved when I finally saw a pair of headlights approaching. Turns out Stefano’s mounted video camera had taken a tumble and they’d stopped to fix it, phew.

We went straight to the petrol station upon entering Tash Kurgan (we were all running pretty low and fuel stops seem to be few and far between in this area of China) and thus ensued a rather surreal experience. First we were directed to stop two metres away from the pump, apparently to guard against risk of fire caused by our comms systems of all things (never mind the hot bike engine…) Then, when everyone wanted to fill the jerry cans they’d purchased at the market in Kashgar, they had to take them far away from the forecourt and have the fuel brought over In large metal teapots – WTF?!! I don’t even know what the explanation for that one was, but it seemed highly unnecessary, especially seeing as they had filled up our jerry cans from the pump no problem. China has some odd s**t going on.  At least our hotel was just around the corner, and it revealed itself to be clean and comfortable (apart from the duvet cover which smelt of smoke, ew). We all walked into town (just one main street) and got a massive plate of noodles for lunch, being ravenous after the pathetic egg breakfast. Muza then took us to see ‘the ruins’ – basically a pile of rubble that we felt more than a little ripped off for being charged entrance for! Ten minutes was ample for ‘sightseeing’ then we headed back to the market to buy provisions: the next day would see us enter Pakistan and rumour was that food and petrol were very scarce following the landslides and other natural disasters that had blocked access for supplies (and access for us potentially, but hey, that was another problem for another day…)


Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

(Emily) Our impression of the hotel in Kashgar did not improve the following morning when we found that all the breakfast buffet had been decimated  even though we arrived half an hour before it finished. By the time Muza came back to meet us at 9.30 am, we were all a bit disgruntled – remember, the five days in China were costing each person over $700 so we felt entitled to be looked after a little better than this. Muza agreed that the hotel was crap (er, why bring us here in the first place then) and proposed that we change to another. The tastefully named ‘Seman Hotel’ turned out to be much better, thank goodness, but it did mean a whole morning was wasted with the palaver of getting repacked etc. Then we had to go to the Newland Travel office to pay our fees, finally meeting Taher who was the owner and had been our contact via email for the past six months. There had been a bit of confusion over who had paid their deposit or not and it seemed to us that getting money off the rich westerners was the main priority. James and I had been sure that the money had come out of our account when we were asked to transfer it to the Bank of China back in July. As it happens, it turns out that the payment hadn’t gone through and once we’d seen on our internet banking that HSBC had returned the $200 to us just a few days before, of course we were happy to pay again. However, Muza’s flippant comment that it was ‘just a day’s wages’ for us didn’t go down too well…

Several people had issues with their bikes that needed seeing to so that afternoon we followed Muza (on his bicycle!) down to a local garage where we (‘we’) worked on them until the sun went down. Donato’s Harley probably needed the most work having been bumped and shaken to bits on all the bad roads, plus Carl needed a new hinge making for his panier system and Stefano’s rear sub-frame had a big crack which needed welding. The guys at the garage seemed to be able to make and do just about anything and didn’t charge a huge amount so there were lots of satisfied customers that afternoon. (James and I felt almost uneasy that nothing needed sorting on our bikes – what were we missing?! Good little bikes, they’re holding up really well). It was dark by the time we left; cue another interesting ride through the chaotic streets back to the new hotel. Poor Muza was a wreck when we arrived – he’d been pedalling so fast, as you’d have to when leading a group of motorcycles on a push bike, and all on an empty stomach due to Ramadan. However, once he’d finished being ill he perked up and took us down to a local Uyghur (the indigenous people) restaurant that he recommended – it didn’t disappoint. We were really fortunate to have a local with us as he knew what was good and ordered a fantastic selection of food; each plate was a new taste sensation. The pumpkin manty (a bit like large tortellini) was particularly good – my mouth is watering with the recollection! Not only was the food great, but the restaurant itself was in a fantastically grand building with intricate wooden carvings all around, and it was absolutely packed with local families – always a good sign.

On Sunday, with the jobs done, we got to see a bit of Kashgar itself, heading first to the legendary silk road animal market and then the bazaar. The animal market was a similar set-up to the one we’d been to in Karakol but this time on a much larger scale and far more chaotic. It felt more like we were in Pakistan than China as most of the local people were Muslim and not very Chinese looking but of course where we were was so close to the borders with Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan. We picked our way through the hundreds of goats, sheep, cows and yaks, careful to avoid getting caught hemmed in next to a rear end… There was a particularly comedy breed of sheep with a big bottom, all the more emphasised if the animal was sheared! Bartering was much more in evidence than in calm karakul, with some of the haggling getting quite forceful, and it was fun to be amid all the craziness. It all felt very foreign, which was great! The Sunday bazaar was another good experience; very colourful and selling everything from dried fruit, to fabrics, to musical instruments. A fur seller jumped on Stefano and me, making us don hats made of real fox fur. I have to say, the rabbit fur hat/scarf combo he tied round my head was beautifully soft and warm but there was no way we were going to support somewhere that also had tiger furs hanging up – WRONG! What did get in the market though, was a lovely sheepskin to go on our seats. We’d been keeping an eye out for one since Istanbul but only come across rather ‘raw’ looking untreated skins hanging by the roadside. This one was beautifully done, soft and white – too white really! Bene, James and I clubbed together for one skin that we could cut into three and bartered down to 200 RMB (about twenty quid – same as Ikea!) We also picked up some extra large rubber gloves to go over our rather inadequate summer riding ones when it rained, and some extra bungees – you can never have too many bungees!

The afternoon was spent relaxing in ‘John’s Café’ next to the hotel where people were able to catch up on emails and Bene and I sat down little good little women to sew elastic straps onto our sheepskins. In the evening we walked down to the night market which was thronging with people at the food stalls, able to eat now that the sun had gone down. The sheep heads and trotters didn’t look too appealing but luckily there was some more innocuous fare and we stuffed ourselves on noodles, dumplings, chickpeas and melon, happily ignoring the somewhat dubious hygiene standards. We started to walk back and then spied an empty motorised cart taxi (front bit motorbike, back bit cart)… we couldn’t resist and the six of us piled into the back for a rather hair-raising ride back to the hotel! We could have all done with another day in Kashgar as I’m sure it has more to offer, but the itinerary was set and the following day we were due to continue south, at last putting wheel to tarmac (hopefully) on the famous KKH.

The ‘road’ to Kashgar

Saturday, August 28th, 2010

(James) Given that the day would see us pass over 3,700m at the Torugart Pass, which is the border crossing between Kyrgyzstan and China, we were relieved to see clear blue sky when we stepped out of our yurt on Friday morning. It’s fair to say that we were all quite relaxed at breakfast; word was that the roads in China were absolutely fine and we were supposedly only 60km from the border, making for a potentially easy day with an estimated arrival time in Kashgar of early afternoon. We knew the road to the border on the Kyrgyz side would continue to be bad so Donato and Roberta headed off at 8.30 am on the Harley, while we packed up at a more leisurely pace and took a few (more) photos. China required our ‘guide’ (it’s impossible to travel in China on your own transport without a government approved guide/observer) to meet us at the Torugart Pass and we had agreed a time of 1pm, although it was unclear whether this was Beijing or Xinjiang time (China officially has one time zone – Beijing time – but unofficially each region operates a more realistic ‘local time’, in our case Xinjiang time…) We set off with confidence, going as fast as the bad road surface allowed, but progress checks on the map quickly revealed that the border was more than 60km away and time was actually tighter than we had anticipated.

(Emily) We rolled up to the Kyrgyz side of the border, shaken and dusty, at five to one in the end – cutting it fine! Unfortunately, it then took over 45 minutes to ‘process’ us (during which time the border guard seemed to go for lunch) and there was a long stretch of no-man’s-land through the mountains on the other side before we got to the Torugart Pass (at 3750m, our highest pass yet!). Hence we were a little late but Muza, our guide, didn’t seem to mind and he dished out some gratefully received bread (none for him – Ramadan). After a passport inspection, Muza jumped into his car and told us to follow him; apparently it was another 40km to the actual customs post. We happily obliged, eager for some lovely smooth Chinese tarmac after several days on unpaved roads… only to be greeted by miles of churned up crap as far as the eye could see. WTF, this wasn’t right!?! We’d only just got going when, on a stretch of road only one lane wide with piles of gravel lining one side, a lorry decided to plough on through in the on-coming direction straight towards Muza’s car and Fabian, Carl and Bene on their bikes. As they tried to swerve into gaps between the gravel piles, the car was scraped all along one side, as was Fabian’s panniers. Carl managed to pull in just in time, whereas Bene, realising she had no-where to go, simply tipped herself and the bike into one of the dirt piles to avoid being crushed. Welcome to China! James and I were still higher up the pass, bringing up the rear, and watched the chaos as we felt the first flutters of snow. This was not how we had envisaged our entrance into country number 17!

It turned out to be a really, really tough day. The poor road continued on and on, in fact it wasn’t just poor, it was ridiculously bad. There was no tarmac to be seen for the first 70km and numerous Chinese roadwork crews were carving up the already gravelly, rocky surface causing thick trenches of clay that were incredibly hard to ride through. Often the road had been entirely destroyed and we were diverted off into the valley; at one point having to ride along (i.e. in) a stream that had formed from flood water, negotiating wet shingle and muddy bits. This horrendous experience culminated in having to cross the actual river to get back to the road, which was deep, fast flowing and muddy bottomed. No siree! The others had already got ahead and conquered the crossing – James now had quite the audience for his turn, and not only that, he had to do it twice!! Comedy moment as he came back across on foot to get my bike, took a running jump and instead of landing in shallow water on the opposite bank as he anticipated, it came up to his knees causing him to fall and dive commando roll stylee on to the bank! However, on the bikes he traversed the water like a pro, despite it being his first time at a river crossing, and was certainly my hero for the day. As I walked over on foot to get across, Muza joked, ‘You have licence?’ Er, not for long actually so shut your face! I did at least get a lift in the car back up to the road (with Roberta – pillions are not helpful when negotiating water) and although the car made it through the water ok, it then ground out on the rocky slope back up to the road. An unfortunate lorry hadn’t even got that far and was stuck fast in the river bed. See photos for the whole delightful scene.

The whole time we were enjoying this lovely route, we had one watchful eye on the weather which was not looking at all good. Luckily the earlier snow had been a brief flurry and, apart from a short hail shower (yes, hail), the threatening rain miraculously held off. This was a relief of huge proportions as a downpour would have turned what was a tricky road into a downright dangerous one and, now we were in China on a strictly regulated schedule, there was no time to stop and sit it out. After we’d been going for three hours, it was clear that Muza’s ‘40km’ to the checkpoint was a vast exaggeration and soon I had to stop and take my tinted goggles off as I was struggling to see due to the dark clouds and lateness of the hour. It was 90km before we finally felt the sweetness of smooth, smooth tarmac and not long after, arrived at customs. The clouds were finally clearing so even though it was 7pm, it was lighter than it had been for most of the afternoon. However, our hopes of arriving in Kashgar early in the day had become a distant memory and I was starting to get anxious about the all too real possibility of having to ride in the dark. Hopefully customs would be quick… ha, ha, ha, this is China we’re talking about!! We all had to remove any soft baggage to be passed through the scanner and the bike details were carefully checked against Muza’s paperwork. They pulled James’ map out of the tank bag and scrutinised it for quite some time, apparently checking that the region we were in was marked as Xingjiang and not it’s old name of East Turkistan. Very important, obviously! We also had to get our laptop out – quite what they expected to find, I don’t know. They gave the programs bar a cursory look and seemed satisfied, so satisfied in fact that they let us off the bag search and scan. Bonus; it seemed we were on our way… Not so fast, smug tourist biker people, another official had decided that he wanted to see a laptop from each nationality… okaaay. James disappeared into the office with all the computers and five minutes later James came out stifling his laughter; they’d looked at a selection of photos and random scenes from the films we have downloaded and of course, came upon the exact moment in ‘Life of Brian’ when Brian opens the window in a flourish, revealing his full frontal nakedness to hoards of waiting followers!! Whoops!

After an hour and a half of boring officialdom, we were on our way to our final destination; Kashgar. Sure enough, we were soon riding along in the dark negotiating hundreds of 125cc bikes (the first motorcycles we’d seen since Turkey pretty much), lorries, carts and all sorts, many without lights on. Thank goodness we had Muza’s car to follow so we didn’t need to worry about which turns to take, and it was good to be riding as part of a group (I was always somewhere in the middle – everyone looks out for me as the newbie!) It was a bit of a shock to enter Kashgar, a busy city with neon everywhere, after the peasant country we’d been riding through all day. In town, the car reduced speed to about 20kph so none of us got left behind at junctions and on roundabouts, so it was actually quite amusing pootling along in a snails pace convoy while locals looked on in bemusement. Well, it would have been amusing if we weren’t all dog tired from the hellish day we’d had. The relief when we finally pulled into the hotel at 10pm was palpable, and everyone’s spirits were buoyed by the hilarity of a tiny police bike arriving two-up with lights flashing all over the place. At first it seemed they wanted to berate Muza for hanging out of the car window to give directions, but as soon as they saw the bikes they got far too excited and forgot all about it!! There were crowds gathered all around – the Chinese are serious bike enthusiasts! The air of joviality didn’t last long once we saw our rooms… not the best. Carl and Bene’s carpet was tacky underfoot and stained like a recent murder scene. Nice. They even took photos as evidence for when they complained at the desk (this made no difference; we didn’t experience great customer service during our stay, that’s for sure). We were so exhausted, we accepted the crapness and went across the road for our first proper meal of the day. It was 11pm and the restaurant was about to close but they duly re-opened and, with the menu all in Chinese, Fabian went to the kitchen to choose some food first-hand (he literally picked out the live fish and five minutes later it was chopped up on a plate in front of us!) It was a great meal – lots of plates of raw vegetables and noodles which we dropped into a communal hot pot of stock in the middle, fishing them out with chopsticks a few minutes later. And they served much required beer! A good ending to a pretty bad day.